Tackling the Cold: Secrets from the Animal World
Tackling the Cold: Secrets from the Animal World

At this time of year, it’s nice to cuddle up with a cup of cocoa and escape the cold. Winter means bundling up in scarves, mitts and thick coats when it’s chilly out. But what about animals that survive the winter elements without a toque? How do animals tackle the cold?

All about insulation

Many mammals get help staying warm with their thick fur. The red fox’s fur has stiff hairs that help keep the snow away from its body, and it carries around its own fashionable scarf, everywhere it goes. The fox’s big bushy tail makes up a third of its body and helps it with balance and communication. But when the cold sets in, it’s perfect for wrapping around themselves to keep away the chills.

On Sable Island, off the coast of Nova Scotia, 400,000 grey seals arrive every winter to breed, just in time for the snow storms and gale force winds. But they take it all in their stride. A thick layer of blubber keeps the adults warm, and a combo of blubber and downy fur ensures the newly born pups stay toasty next to mum. Even in the middle of January, they are the ultimate beach bums.

Sleeping away the cold

What’s the most appealing strategy for bracing the cold? Stay in bed! The thirteen-lined ground squirrel digs a cozy burrow and sleeps away the winter months. Sheltered from the sub-zero temperatures above ground, the squirrel remains in a state of ‘torpor’, a deep hibernation that drastically slows its breathing and heart rate. But it can be a risky tactic.

One Canadian amphibian goes a step further. The wood frog has no fur to insulate it, no way to migrate from the cold, and very little in the way of fat reserves. Its strategy? It freezes solid. Creating its own special anti-freeze to protect its tissues, its body is kept in suspended animation, encased in ice.

Just embrace it!

For the lucky few that are able to find abundant food in winter, there is less to worry about. For river otters, freezing temperatures ice up their waterways and fishing grounds. But they aren’t worried, they just dive beneath the ice to search for their food. Playful in nature, otters seem to delight in the cold, frolicking in the snow and enjoying their winter playground.

In the Yukon, winter arrives early and a frozen landscape appears by early autumn. The remote Fishing Branch river is fed by a thermal spring and doesn’t freeze, creating a vital lifeline to the locals. Ice bears call this place home, grizzlies that flock to the river to feed on chum salmon, providing them with essential food to get them through the long winter.

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